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Advocacy groups react to Obama's transparency proposals

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  1. Freedom of Information
Open government organizations praised what they called sweeping commitments to promote government transparency and accountability in an action plan released…

Open government organizations praised what they called sweeping commitments to promote government transparency and accountability in an action plan released by President Obama last week, but many said they were cautious in their optimism that the pledge alone would be enough to bring historical change to the culture of secrecy in Washington.

The “National Action Plan,” developed as part of the multi-country coalition known as the Open Government Partnership, aims to be a roadmap for the U.S. to create an “unprecedented level of openness in the government” here at home and a model of transparency to ship to nations abroad.

The plan builds on — and often borrows — from pledges already made in the administration’s year-old Open Government Initiative. In it, Obama commits to, among other initiatives, proposals to further digitize government records, improve Freedom of Information Act processing, strengthen whistleblower protections and implement various measures to increase the kind of information the government proactively makes available.

“I think the success will be mixed,” John Wonderlich, the policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, said after reviewing the action plan. “The experience of the Open Government directive has shown us that implementation is much harder than getting a political declaration. He has got a fantastic declaration, but the challenge now is moving into the implementation.”

Increasing access to information

As part of the push for open government, Obama’s plan makes specific pledges to increase public access to information, ranging from improving records management and FOIA processing to taking new transparency measurements such as declassifying national security information and publicly disclosing government revenue from oil, gas and mining.

The pledges come at a time where, despite improvements, problems still persist in getting information to the public.

The federal government under Obama has reduced, but still faces a significant FOIA request backlog. Agencies have reported in overwhelming numbers that they are at risk of losing records due to mismanagement. And, at least according to a recent audit conducted by the advocacy organization Openthegovernment.org, not all agencies have been been consistent in following the administration’s suggested guidelines for proactively posting certain high-interest information online.

Amy Bennett, a program associate at Openthegovernment.org, said that she was happy to see that this recent action plan was following up on these issues and taking a holistic approach to addressing FOIA processing.

Steps proposed such as transitioning to digital records will allow government agencies to better manage their records and will more quickly and accurately respond to FOIA requests — a major priority in addressing the “atrocious” state of federal records, she said.

Bennett also applauded the administration’s proposal to further professionalize the FOIA administration. Typically, she said, government workers cycle in and out of FOIA processing jobs because there is no path for promotion, meaning that those with the most experience in the field are generally lost as they advance in their agencies. By setting up a career path, she said, seasoned employees can stay and continue to develop their knowledge base, which will increase efficiency.

The plan also rehashes proposals already put forward by the Obama administration asking agencies to proactively post useful information on their websites. Although the wording in the action plan is vague, previous suggestions by the administration included having an openness portal on each agency's website that would share budgets, reports, compliance information and public indexes of all the records that agency keeps — including information they have that can and cannot be subject to a FOIA request.

“We like agencies to define what is knowable about their activities,” said Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation. He explained that these types of steps are important for the public, press and watchdog organizations because, “well, you can’t ask for what you don’t realize exists.”

Angela Canterbury, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight said although she thought the plan was lacking in the national security area, especially because it failed to address the overused “state secrets” exemption to disclosing information, that she was pleased overall with the breadth of transparency issues that were tackled.

"This is a lofty set of goals," she said, "but hopefully they will continue to move forward with the momentum."

Whistleblower protections

The Obama administration's action plan also commits to pushing forward expanded whistleblower protections for government employees, attempting to tackle a long-stalled legislative effort to close loopholes in existing shields as well as extend them to the intelligence community.

Tom Devine, the legal director at the whistleblower advocacy group Government Accountability Project, said that the current state of laws “almost passively encourages employees to leak information because they do not have a viable way to defend themselves from retaliation if they try to expose waste, fraud or abuse within the system."

The proposal in the action plan takes a strong stance in favor of such protective laws, even threatening to explore an executive order to enact them if Congress failed to act. This commitment to those who expose wrongdoing, however, seems to run counter to accusations levied by critics who claim the Obama administration took a hardline stance against whistleblowers and leakers in several high-profile prosecutions.

“The pending legislation is an anti-leak bill,” Canterbury, of the Project on Government Oversight, said, explaining that the laws Obama is considering are tailored to provide for protections to government employees who legally disclose information while preventing what they deem are unlawful leaks.

Although the administration had been “overzealous” in their pursuit of those who revealed problems in the national security arena, she said, she hoped that the administration's choice to drop the case against Thomas Tamm and reduce the charges against Thomas Drake signaled a new trend of being more thoughtful about how they treat those who expose wrongdoing.

The law being considered is intended to provide "solid rights" to those who choose alternatives to leaking, said Devine, of the Government Accountability Project. He said if the laws are enacted that the Obama White House, unlike previous administrations, will finally be reinforcing their rights instead of undermining them.

“The law would have the impact of overturning almost 20 years of hostile activist judicial rulings which have turned the Whistleblower Protection Act and transformed it from the world’s strongest speech law to a trap that finishes off employees naïve enough to rely on their rights,” he said.

Towards an "unprecedented level of openness?"

In the conclusion of his action plan, President Obama admits that "much work remains" to meet the government transparency and accountability goals he set forth for his administration.

Advocates agreed and said that although the president took a bold first step in releasing and publicizing the recent point-by-point pan, some said that it will be difficult for him to meet his aspirational pledge of creating "an unprecedented level of openness in government."

“Some of the ways the administration has gone about trying to build openness in the agencies is new and completely novel, but some of what they are doing is just setting back the clock on the Bush administration policies,” said Bennett of Openthegovernment.org. “The Obama administration has improved, but they are not at historic lows with secrecy, not at an unprecedented level of transparency."

"But these things take time, and the administration has aimed high, so we are cautiously optimistic,” she said.

The Project on Government Oversight’s Canterbury said that now that the action plan has been released, watchdogs such as her organization have to wait to see if the pledges the Obama administration committed to will actually change the game in Washington.

“This is not a flaky plan, this is a meaty plan,” Canterbury said. “But this is just a robust roadmap, the challenge now is fleshing out the details and implementing the proposal."

"We, in the Washington watchdog community, are difficult to satisfy," she said, "but we are hopeful that we will see the fulfillment of the promise of an unprecedented level of openness in government.”